Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bruce Wilder 09.20.12 at 6:17 pm

A couple of points about the underlying political dynamics might be in order:

In contrast to Australia, the U.S. has very low voter turnout, and part of the political dynamics turns on strategies to “motivate the base” to get out and vote, and/or “suppress” or discourage turnout. Karl Rove’s successful strategy in 2004 turned on such subtleties as having state referenda on gay marriage to get out the evangelical vote, and manipulating the issuing of “terror alerts” a few days before the election, to get a predictable “scared” shift toward Bush of a few percent. The Republicans were able to stage a massive comeback in 2010, retaking the House, on the strength of Tea Party excitement combined with Democratic Party demoralization, reflected in turnout at the polls.

Obama’s overall political strategy has been to move to, and occupy the center-right of American politics. Implemented as policy, this has entailed embracing and extending a large part of the Bush policy regime, regarding the financial system, the economy and taxes, immigration, civil liberties, military spending and the wars, with predictably lackluster results. But, of course, poor results or no, it is a difficult record for a Republican to attack, without seeming ridiculous — these are the policy desiderata of the Right.

As a political strategy, it takes the risk of discouraging and demoralizing the Democratic Party’s base voting blocks — at least the more ideological or policy-conscious ones — since the bulk of Democratic Party voters are situated to Obama’s left, sometimes far left, and Obama has to minimize his own use of the Democrats’ traditional populist rhetoric. Obama has been able to compensate, because he has solid support from black and latino voters, who have taken less notice of his right-wing policies and performance, and with the “war on women” charge against Republican policies.

One of the dividends of Obama’s center-right positioning is that he gets lukewarm support from what used to be moderate Republican factions, in the form of attacks and criticisms of Republican pundits representing these factions on Romney and Ryan. And, mainstream media will report out these criticisms. On the 47% gaffe, Romney has been attacked by such Republican stalwarts as David Brooks of the New York Times. Figures like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett and Richard Posner have emerged as pundit representatives of the moderate Republican center-right, who find Obama’s policies congenial; they speak as outsiders, with relation to the Republican Party, but provide an important point of leverage for mainstream reporting of the he-said, she-said variety.

Romney’s nomination is oddly discordant with the patterns of Republican Party presidential politics. The Republican Party has become a regional party, with its base concentrated in the old Confederacy of the South, and its support elsewhere, where the South finds resonance. Until very recently, the Presidential contest was in the South, as the relative growth in Republican support and decline in Democratic support called the outcome. The Democrats were most successful, when running Southerners, who would sound populist themes (Carter, Clinton, Gore) and hold more of the white Southern vote. Republicans would counter with authoritarian figures, who would manipulate symbols and sound dog-whistles. Gradually, the Republicans were becoming better and better at effectively sounding populist themes. George W. Bush, cutting brush at his “ranch” and looking to some like an affable companion for beer-drinking, with claims to being born-again, was a triumph of Republican populist fakery.

In some ways, Romney is the right guy for a regional Party: he has ties to Massachusetts, Michigan, Utah, California; everywhere, but the South. That kind of counter-programming is what a regional Party should do; the alternative is to risk a reaction, since the (symbolic) South (of racist backward ignorance) is held in contempt by most of the country. But, he’s been completely unsuccessful in putting on the populist flannel shirt or in sounding like the authoritarian “daddy party” figure, exemplified by the Republican governors of New Jersey, Florida, Wisconsin and some other states.

Populist appeals have become the un-played, and possibly unplayable card, in this election. Not because they get no reaction from the electorate, but because populist appeals threaten to get too much of a reaction, too much of a response, in a country in which vast numbers of people are feeling their own economic descent.

Bruce Wilder 09.20.12 at 7:04 pm

I think Romney’s “47%” remark correctly reflects the views of a great many of the wealthy and privileged, who instinctively regard much of the world’s population as so much useless surplus, unneeded in an economy constrained by the limits of physical resources. The viciousness of the thought stands out, of course, but what ought to impress us more is the realism.

“Peak oil”, world population growth, climate-change and related trends mark out one of the most momentous changes since the modern world began to emerge in the 17th and 18th centuries. The entire energy basis of the world economy will have to change completely in the next 30-50 years, and the U.S. will certainly not be able to claim an out-sized share of energy in the global economy of 2050. That implies that energy consumption in the U.S. will have to decline, substantially (~60+%), over the next generation, which, in turn, implies that the suburbs and ex-urbs — as a pattern of life supporting a culture of dreams and ambition — is doomed. It also implies that globalization of the manufacturing and agricultural economies, though maybe not the information economy, is, also, doomed.

A lot of Republican “tea party” reactionary appeal in the 2010 elections was the expression of anger about the felt threat, especially in the ex-urbs and suburbs, to a pattern of life that went deeper than symbolic “guns” and “bibles”. That newly elected Republican governors rejected major transit projects in New Jersey, Florida and Wisconsin was the “symbolic” politics of that anger.

American politics is in a right-wing box, kept there by fear that all the alternatives to a crumbling status quo, are worse, combined with the demands of corrupt vested interests to preserve whatever still extracts value, whether it is iPhones or payday loans, fractured medical care or Wal-Mart or student loans that condemn a generation to debt peonage.

The preservationist instinct, brought out in periodic panic reactions to the crumbling status quo, is driven by stupid fear, and its consequences for both the choice of policy and the design and execution of policy, are terrible, and often senselessly corrupt. We are saddled with a massively oversized financial sector, much of it dependent on extractive frauds, because everyone fears the alternative of a crash or nationalization or even prosecutions. So many of the rich elite, like Romney, live off of disinvestment, and so much of the economy is extractive, that we lose track of what it would mean to invest in adding value, or to build a better future.

The Republicans can call for leveling — attacking the “privileges” of unionized teachers or other public employees, or calling for “sacrifice” in the form of cuts to Social Security, and they will be echoed by Democrats like Obama and his good friend, Rahm.

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